John E. Thomas Jr. was the first African-American to join the Village of Brightwaters’ police department, and this past weekend, state and local leaders memorialized him and his contributions to the Bay Shore-Brightwaters-Brentwood community.
Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter and State Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) joined other leaders to dedicate an overpass on Fifth Avenue over the Southern State Parkway in Bay Shore to Thomas during a 90-minute ceremony. Retired Suffolk County detectives Belinda Alvarez-Groneman and John Walters also spoke Saturday.
About 100 people attended the event at Fifth Avenue Elementary School, including Thomas’ daughter LaVerne Thomas, Thomas’ wife Beverly and his son, Gordon Thomas.
“To have a bridge named after him was an awesome and proud moment for me and my family,” Gordon Thomas said. “It was great to see everyone recognize the positive things my father did in the community.”
John Thomas was born in Bay Shore. He enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and was eventually stationed in the Philippines and Pearl Harbor during World War II.
John Thomas joined Brightwaters’ police force in 1951. Four years later, John Thomas joined Islip Town’s police force. After five years in Islip, he joined the Suffolk County Police Department when it formed in 1960. He was assigned to the Third Precinct, based in Bay Shore.
Throughout his law enforcement career, John Thomas was known as the Jackie Robinson of the police force, being the first black officer or one of few black officers in a department. He became a mentor to many African-American officers.
Thomas was remembered Saturday for playing a key role in starting the Suffolk Police Athletic League. While with the department, Thomas coached kids in boxing at the Brentwood Recreation Center, a program that still exists today.
Thomas retired in 1987 then served as director of security for Bay Shore Public Schools until 1998. He died in 2010.
Gordon Thomas said it was symbolic that Islip officials dedicated a bridge overpass to his father.
“He was a humble guy, so he would say that he wasn’t worthy of this, but he would be proud, too,” Gordon Thomas said. “In reality, he was truly a bridge from Bay Shore to Brentwood.”